What connects you to drama? Good characters? A certain tone? Excitement? A good story? Invoking memories of stuff you watched in the past? If you’re Stranger Things, the latest original drama from Netflix, aims to apply all of those. There’s been a good reaction on social media from all sorts of people on my social feeds, so I was looking forward to tackling it. What I found something that was a strong story, with strong characters – that loses a bit of its strength when it starts to focus more on it’s plot.
Set in the early 80s in a small town called Hawkins, a group of friends that plays D&D and speak through walkie-talkies find one of their own, Will (Noah Schnapp) vanishing under mysterious circumstances. Led by Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will’s friends meet the mysterious Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) who has a connection to a strange creature that appears to be hunting people down. Elsewhere, Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is convinced her son is still alive and talking to her, whilst Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour) is finding everything happening to his town at once. What these characters find is that things are leading to a massive breach within dimensions; and there’s shady Government agents in hidden buildings chasing people down; and it’s a group of kids that hold the kid to help stop it.
First things first: it’s very eighties. There’s a lot of influences and references to Steven Spielberg (ET, especially) Close Encounters, films like Stand by Me etc. The title sequence has film grain and the music slightly loses pitch due to tracking; the on-screen captions feel so 80s – it’s going for the nostalgic aesthetic. Kids ride bikes, teenagers have stupid haircuts and there’s some great music in the background.
The show’s casting is very good. There’s the old saying about not working with children or animals? The children here are very good and finely cast to the characters they play. They aren’t annoying in the slightest. A particular highlight is Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) who is the designated comic relief but also the midpoint between Mike’s belief and Lucas’s skepticism. Rounding them off is the mysterious Eleven, played brilliantly by Brown. She’s quite low-key in terms of personality, but there’s plenty of fun to be had and her look makes her stand out. The friendship between her and Mike is written very well, and is also quite touching.
In terms of the adult cast, Harbour does well as your usual 80s hero, ticking off a few cliched boxes – but the highlight is Ryder. Winona Ryder comes back into the public consciousness with reckless abandon here, playing hysterical unwavering belief that her son is still alive. But still maintaining a care over other characters; it’s a remarkable performance that stands out quite well.
The series unfolds at an initially slow pace; building up the characters and slow-dripping the mythology of what is happening. The opening episodes are very strong, focusing on character and seeing what is happening to the lives of these particular set of characters when the strange things start occurring. The world-building is very well done, and it’s absorbing and when that is happening the episodes fly by.
What this means, however, is that once the series starts to reveal more details about what’s happening, it’s when things start to show a few cracks. It’s involving, and because you’ve fallen for the characters you see things to the end – but there’s the odd few moments where the plot starts to take over the characters and things feel a little too neat. There are a few loose co-incidences that are shortcuts to the plot and the climax with the monster having to be defeated twice doesn’t make much sense. There’s a whole thing where Will’s brother Jonathan and Mike’s sister Nancy try and kill it – only for it to be killed by Eleven later on. There’s also the strange reasoning of Hopper and Joyce being allowed to go into the Upside Down on their own to look for Will. I’m not 100% sure it fully clicked with me.
Those story-beats are something that could be easily overlooked as it’s still a drama that needs to wrap things up but those mythological elements still feel as if they betray a lot of good character work. The only real sticking point I found with the series; was that despite the work to make things look like it was the 1980s, and to even have the onscreen graphics to match, the music and all that stuff: why does the CGI of the monster look so…bad.
The reveal and shots of the creature in the final episode was slightly disappointing, almost laughable. There’s a sense of unfinished CGI floating around that doesn’t feel like it fit with the rest of the visual look of the show. It was the first real genuine disappointment in the series: it may it look like it belonged in a cheap SyFy Made-for-TV-movie.
Aside from that, the series is still great to watch. The acting and characters are the key selling points, and there are moments in the first half that are very well filmed. Still recommended.
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